David Ohle, The Blast

Publisher: Calamari Press

2014, 97 pages, paperback, $12

THE MOST THRILLING part of reading The Blast came after I finished it, looked up David Ohle on the Internet, and learned that his many other books are set in the same strange world. The Blast is a slim, post-apocalyptic novella that gives readers a couple of tense, amusing, and entertaining hours. I simply couldn’t put the book down, and that almost never happens.

The world of The Blast is disorienting at first, but Ohle masterfully guides the reader through it, providing relevant information when needed, and not bothering with information that isn’t. Ohle’s sure-handed confidence comes from experience and pleasure—you get the feeling that it was a lot of fun to write the book, which is not overtly serious or heavy-handed with politics. It’s a more sinister version of a campfire tale, loaded with visceral details and hilarious dialogue.

The Blast takes place in a gruesome world eerily similar to our own, but far in the future, after a mysterious “blast” (an enormous nuclear explosion) has laid waste to the country. The radiation from it has genetically altered many people’s genes so that they become almost living zombies: they are technically alive, but they don’t eat, they don’t bleed, they are weak, brittle, and vulnerable, they can talk, and they most certainly do not try to eat other people’s brains. The actual story—the plot, if you will—centers around the family of Wencel (“the Pencil”), a schoolboy who is tortured for his inability to grow a beard, whose father was imprisoned for stealing a radio and comes back as one of those living zombies, and whose mother does whatever she can to get by and provide for her son. His mother enters into a relationship with a carpenter who comes by their home to fix a footbridge and suddenly moves in; he is a brutal, physical man who both terrorizes and protects Wencel and his mother.

It’s far from being just a book about zombies, however. Ohle’s satire takes aim at issues rampant in America today, such as our love affair with prescription medicine and the mass dumbing-down of our culture. The people of this world tranquilize themselves with drugs and ritually undergo “forgettings,” wherein they can no longer remember anything from the past—not just political history, but even their own names. There are three classes taught at St. Cuthbert’s Boys Academy: Pop History, which offers hints about late-20th/early-21st century America which, by the way, is known as the Age of Sinatra and was presided over by President Raymond Gunn, who ushers in The Age of the Nerds; Emoticonics, which is the teaching of emoticon linguistics; and, of course, Theatre. Right from the beginning, Ohle uses the Emoticonics class to draw in the reader with this hilarious exchange:

           The teacher, Father Bundt, neatly bearded, said, “Close all those dictionaries. We’re
           having a quick quiz on the early use of Emo as a form of communication.” He drew a
           single emoticon on the blackboard. “It’s a bit primitive but there you are, one of the first
           ones ever recorded”:

           “Someone tell me what that means.” There were no hands raised. “It means ‘heart.’ Come
           on, boys, Emo was the language of our ancestors. You must learn it to preserve it for
           future generations.” (8)

As the world and its history gets fleshed out, it becomes, to the reader, more scarily realistic and possible—probable, even. We find out that after humanity ran out of oil, they ran out of trees, and then blew themselves up with “The Blast,” whatever exactly that was. And now, they live in a depopulated, anarchistic, and murderous society, coexisting with gangs of feral white and black poodles (apparently all dogs are known as poodles), stomping on giant rats, and eating the disgusting foods of the apparently imminent future, such as “krab,” slugs, and dry pizzles—if you own a dog, you know how gross that is.

But perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the book is how everyone is resigned to this awful fate. The zombie-people don’t complain about the empty husks of their being, and the book even ends with a happy family dinner of sorts (note that Jimmy Junior is a “zombie”):

           One of the boys waved. “Steaks ready! Come get some.”

           Howard said, “Not me. I’m full.”

           “Me either,” Jimmy Junior said. “Thanks, but I don’t eat.”

           Bubba passed around a bottle of bitter weed wine. “Have a drink, friends. Life is worth
           living at last.”

           Day forked slugs onto old army plates. About the size and thickness of a human palm,
           the steaks oozed steaming juices and smelled of rotting seaweed.

           By the time the wine had gone around more than once, all but Jimmy Junior were woozy
           and confused.

           “These slugs are delicious,” Wencel’s mother said. (96)

To say that post-apocalyptic novels are all the rage right now would be reductive and simplistic, but not necessarily wrong. Everyone knows we’ve screwed it all up, and there’s always been an appeal for good dystopian fiction, from Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), to Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), to Orwell’s 1984 (1949), to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962). Ohle isn’t jumping on the most recent bandwagon, however. He published his first book, Motorman, with Knopf in 1972; the book, though considered a cult classic, went out of print. His second book, a nonfiction compilation of interviews with Kansas hippies called Cows are Freaky When They Look At You, came out in 1991, and his other books have been published more recently, including a book titled Age of Sinatra (2004). Stumbling upon The Blast was like hearing an amazing song from an underground punk band, and then realizing that they’ve been making great records for the past twenty years and sell out the smaller venues every time they come to town.

It’s a shame that this idiosyncratic, inventive author isn’t more widely read—though there has been a resurgence of late—but he should be. His surreal writing will not appeal to everyone, but that’s okay, because neither do The Onion, Tim & Eric, or salmon sashimi.

—Phillip Mandel